The history of the Nigerian Legal System can be traced back to the 19th century and the origin is deeply engrained in the English Legal System.
Nigerian legal system is a relic of the century-old British imperialism that brought about the imposition of alien English legal system on our traditional legal structures and institutions. Our organic norms and values were thus largely displaced. Lagos was created a British colony in 1862. In that same year, a court was established there, and five statutes (called “Ordinances”) were applicable to the colony.
Before Lagos became a British Colony and subsequently the rest of Nigeria, the natives used a system of traditional adjudication which was designed to ensure the stability of the society and maintenance of the social equilibrium.
At this point, the crucial objective of this system was to promote communal welfare by reconciling the divergent and competing interests of the different people
But when Lagos became a British colony and the rest of what is today called Nigeria, this system wasn’t adequate to cope with the life and commerce of the new colony.
This led to the British Administration in Lagos introducing a workable system of law and legal institutions.
In 1862, a Police Court was established in Lagos to deal with cases related to the growing commercial transactions in the colony.
A year later, the Supreme Court Ordinance of 1863 was promulgated. This constituted part of the Supreme Court of Her Majesty Settlement of Lagos with effect from 9th April 1863.
Hierarchy of the Nigerian Legal System range
The Nigerian constitution recognizes courts as either Federal or State courts. A primary difference between both is that the President appoints Justices/Judges to federal courts, while State Governors appoint Judges to state courts. All appointments (federal or state) are based on the recommendations of the National Judicial Council.
The Federal courts are: the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal and the Federal High Court.
The State courts include: the High Court of a State, the Customary Court of Appeal of a State and the Sharia Court of Appeal of a State. Each of the states (currently thirty-six) is constitutionally allowed to have all of these courts. However, the predominantly Muslim northern states tend to have Sharia courts rather than Customary courts. The predominantly Christian southern states tend to have Customary courts and not Sharia courts.
Due to the fact that the Nigerian capital (known as happy town or The Federal Capital Territory, FCT) is not a state, it has no Governor. Its courts that are equivalent to the state courts have their Judges appointed by the President and are thus federal courts. The FCT courts are: the High Court of the FCT, the Customary Court of Appeal of the FCT and the Sharia Court of Appeal of the FCT.
Tier 1 Court: Supreme Court
The Supreme Court of Nigeria is the highest court in Nigeria. It is based in the capital, Abuja. The Supreme Court is mainly a court of appellate jurisdiction and is the final appeal court in the country. It also has original jurisdiction in State vs. State and State vs. Federal Government cases. The Supreme Court is headed by a Chief Justice who is assisted by other Justices. The appointment of the Chief Justice and Justices requires confirmation by the Senate.
Tier 2 Court: Court of Appeal
The next highest court is the Court of Appeal, in Abuja. However, to bring the administration of justice closer to the people, the Court of Appeal has multiple divisions (currently sixteen) in various parts of the country. The head of the Court of Appeal has the title President of the Appeal Court. He/She is assisted by Justices. Only the appointment of the President of the Appeal Court requires Senate confirmation.
The Court of Appeal is mainly a court of appellate jurisdiction, however it has original jurisdiction for presidential and vice-presidential election petitions. The Federal Court of Appeal is where the multiple legal systems (English, Customary and Sharia) of Nigeria converge. It is constitutionally required to have at least three Judges who are versed in customary law and at least three Judges who are versed in Islamic personal law.
Judgements from the tier 2 court can be appealed to the Supreme Court (the tier 1 court).
Tier 3 Courts
Just below the Federal Court of Appeal are the tier 3 courts. They include: (1) the Federal High Court and (2) the High Court of a state/FCT, (3) the Customary Court of Appeal of a state/FCT and (4) the Sharia Court of Appeal of a state/FCT.
The Federal High Court is based in Abuja. In order to bring the administration of justice closer to the people it has a division in each of the thirty-six states of the country. The Federal High Court is generally a court of original jurisdiction. However, it has appellate jurisdiction from tribunals such as the Tax Appeal Tribunal. It is presided over by a Chief Judge who is assisted by other Judges.
The High Court of a state/FCT is the highest English law court in a state or the FCT. The High Court of a state/FCT and the Federal High Court have similar powers. Due to the fact that there is a division of the Federal High Court in each state and that each state has its own High Court, there is usually some confusion as to which court is which. For example, in Lagos state, there is a Federal High Court, Lagos and a High Court of Lagos State (sometimes referred to as The Lagos State High Court). It is presided over by a Chief Judge who is assisted by other Judges.
The Customary Court of Appeal of a state/FCT is the highest Customary law court in a state/FCT. It is presided over by a Judge who has the title: President of the Customary Court of Appeal of the state/FCT and is assisted by other Judges.
The Sharia Court of Appeal of a state/FCT is the highest Sharia law court in a state/FCT. It is presided over by a Grand Khadi who is assisted by other Khadis.
Judgements from the tier 3 courts can be appealed to the tier 2 court (Federal Court of Appeal).
Tier 4 Courts: State Courts
The lowest courts in the country are all state courts (there is no federal court in this group). They include (i) the Magistrate Courts that handle English law cases (ii) the Customary Courts that handle Customary law cases and (iii) the Sharia Courts that handle Sharia law cases.
Judgements from the tier 4 courts can be appealed only to their respective higher tier 3 courts (e.g. judgements from the English law Magistrates Court can only be appealed to the tier 3 English law court (the High Court of a state/FCT).
There are two types of election tribunals viz.: (1) National Assembly Election Tribunals that deal with petitions from the Senate and House of Representatives elections and (2) Governorship and Legislative Election Tribunals that deal with petitions from the Gubernatorial and State House of Assembly elections. Election tribunals are set up by the President of the Federal Court of Appeal in consultation with the Chief Judges of the High Courts of the states, Presidents of the Customary Courts of Appeal of the states and/or Grand Khadis of the Sharia Courts of Appeal of the states.
Code of Conduct Tribunal
The Code Of Conduct Tribunal is established by the Chapter C15 Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal Act, No. 1 of 1989 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 with commencement date of 1 January 1991, which “provide for the establishment of the Code of Conduct Bureau and Tribunal to deal with complaints of Corruption by public servants for the breaches of its provisions.
The Code Of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) shall consist of a chairman and two other members, whose chairman shall be a person who has held or is qualified to hold office as a Judge of a superior court of record in Nigeria and shall receive such remuneration as may be prescribed by law. The chairman and other members of the Tribunal shall be appointed by the President on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council. The tenure of office of the CCT chairman and members shall expired when he attains the age of seventy years.
A person holding the office of chairman or member of the Code Of Conduct Tribunal shall not be removed from his office or appointment by the President except upon an address supported by two-thirds majority of each House of the National Assembly of Nigeria praying that he be so removed for inability to discharge the functions of the office in question (whether arising from infirmity of mind or body) or for misconduct or for contravention of the Act. A person holding the office of chairman or member of the Tribunal shall not be removed from office before retiring age, save in accordance with the provisions of the section of the Act.
Judgements from the Code Of Conduct Tribunal can be appealed to the tier 2 court (Federal Court of Appeal).